Monday, 24 October 2011

England's university landscape: darker than ever

The latest news out of English Higher Education is not encouraging, to say the least. Surveys that show that one in ten potential students might be put off by the new fees structure. Rumours about today's early UCAS application numbers that show about the same drop in numbers actually applying, concentrated especially among mature students looking to attend mid-ranking universities in expensive cities. And that humanities courses might be suffering in particular.

It is certainly true that we'll have to wait a little while to see what those UCAS figures actually mean. The number of 18-year olds is going down anyway. And it's hard to see what the social or grade composition of the potential is at this early stage. But the numbers are highly suggestive. The era of English university expansion is over.

All this at the same time as the depressing uncertainty about what many universities really will charge. As English HE tries desperately to react to Ministers' latest screeching u-turns and hairpin bravado, some may lower their headline fees to take advantage of low-cost places 'freed' from the Government's overall cap. It's an unedifying picture of ad hoc policy adaptation, just made up on the fly.

So congratulations to Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, Cambridge Vice-Chancellor (above), for speaking up and saying what a degree should really be about. Experiencing different views of the world. Developing a critical mindset that nevertheless remains constructive. Asking questions both of yourself and of the people around you. Wondering what it is to be a person.

Attaching such a figure as large as £27,000 to undegraduate courses can only add to the instrumental sense that one invests a huge amount of money in a course, and then expects a return on it. Indeed, the higher the return, the higher the payments, but the quicker they disappear. So 18 to 21-year olds might choose to take law, management, business and medicine to the exclusion of all else.

This poses a real problem for our society. As Borysiewicz asked: 'Medical science can make us live to 90. If you haven't got the arts and humanities what's the point of living until 90?'

As we await the outcomes of one of the most reckless gambles in the history of British public policy, we can only say: hear, hear.

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